Nuclear Blackmail Is More Dangerous Today

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During the 1950s, in the early days of nuclear weapons, there was much discussion about the potential for nuclear blackmail. The world had recently defeated fascism but the problem of an aggressive and amoral leader like Hitler worried geopolitical strategists. If Hitler had developed a nuclear weapon, would the war have ended the way it did? And, if a similar leader emerged and possessed nuclear weapons, would he engage in blackmail by using the threat of a nuclear attack?

As the Cold War evolved, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (the superpowers during the Cold War) created a workable solution to reduce the chances of a nuclear exchange. Both parties built formidable nuclear arsenals that had second strike capabilities, meaning that either side could not “win” such a war by attacking first. By treaty, defense mechanisms against nuclear missiles were limited, reducing the likelihood that either party would conclude it could strike without fear of retribution. Although the U.S. was not the only free world power to have nuclear weapons (the U.K. and France did, too), and China had developed nuclear weapons within the Communist bloc, the two superpowers generally controlled the decision to deploy a nuclear strike. In other words, nuclear proliferation was limited and thus controlling the global nuclear arsenal was manageable.

As time passed, nuclear strategists became less concerned with nuclear blackmail. The world was divided into areas of influence. The U.S. managed and protected the free world and the Soviets did the same for the Communist bloc.

People usually explain outcomes in terms of narratives. Stories are powerful tools for helping us understand why outcomes occurred. Two characteristics often emerge from narratives. First, the simplest narrative becomes the most powerful. Second, because the narrative is simple, outcomes can sometimes be seen as inevitable. A well-developed narrative not only explains why an event occurred but also critically examines the factors that might have led to a different outcome.

The Cold War narrative suggests that nuclear weapons are primarily defensive because of the threat of a second strike and nuclear annihilation. Thus, unless a nation fears regime change, there is little reason to develop a nuclear weapons program. However, this thesis assumes that nuclear weapons decisions will always follow the Cold War pattern. Just because nuclear blackmail did not develop during the Cold

War doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.

In this report, we will define nuclear blackmail and differentiate it from blackmail in a nuclear context. We will discuss why this didn’t develop during the Cold War but why it could happen now. We will also analyze how nuclear blackmail might be used as part of coercive diplomacy as well as part of conventional conflict. Finally, we will examine the likelihood of either form of blackmail occurring in the future and how it may change international relations. As always, we will conclude with potential market ramifications.


Nuclear blackmail is the threat of a state or non-state actor using nuclear weapons to force the behavior of a nation.1 This is different from nuclear deterrence which is the threat of retaliation to prevent unwanted behavior.2 The existence of second strike capacity in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. not only prevented nuclear war between the two parties, but it also constrained the international activities of both powers. The following are two examples of how this worked in practice: 1) the U.S. did not intervene in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and 2) the U.S. was able to get the Soviets to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba. In both cases, fears of nuclear escalation led the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to refrain from taking aggressive actions in each other’s sphere of influence. An example of nuclear blackmail would be the U.S. threatening to deploy nuclear weapons against the Taliban in

Afghanistan if they didn’t extradite Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

Blackmail in a nuclear context is different from nuclear blackmail; it is defined as standard threats by a nuclear power that implies the potential for nuclear weapons to be used. A good example of the difference is in how the U.S. secured Pakistani cooperation in operations against the Taliban in the response to 9/11. Pakistan actually had good relations with the Taliban at the time; geopolitically, it is critical for Pakistan to have a friendly government in Kabul. Pakistan lacks the strategic depth relative to its archenemy India. If Pakistan can rely on a supportive power on its western flank, it can, in theory, fall back to that border safely if invaded by India. On the other hand, if Afghanistan is aligned with India, Pakistan is in a precarious position. Thus, it wasn’t clear whether Pakistan would cooperate with the U.S. as military operations were prepared.

Operations against Afghanistan would have been very difficult without Pakistani cooperation. Afghanistan is landlocked, reducing the impact of naval forces. It borders Iran, which would not allow the U.S. to use its airspace or transfer military equipment across its borders. Although the

“stans” nations border Afghanistan on its north, the logistics of moving material through these areas is daunting. The U.S. really needed to use Pakistani land routes and airspace to effectively attack Afghanistan.

According to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Richard Armitage, then-Assistant Secretary of State, threatened to

“bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age” if Pakistan didn’t cooperate with U.S. operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan.3 It should be noted that
Why Didn’t Nuclear Blackmail Occur

During the Cold War? Has anything changed?

As noted above, nuclear blackmail was a major worry early in the Cold War.4 However, there were three reasons why nuclear blackmail didn’t develop. First, the

U.S. and U.S.S.R. proved to be rather cautious in how they managed the nuclear situation. By the late 1960s, it became apparent that each side had enough weapons that neither country could expect to survive a nuclear war. Second, both powers did a good job of preventing widespread proliferation. As we noted above, other nations did develop or acquire nuclear weapons but these were generally under the control of either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. Nuclear weapons programs are expensive and, during the Cold War, no power outside the U.S. and the U.S.S.R had enough warheads to ensure complete destruction. Thus, developing an independent deterrent seemed illogical. Third, the two powers had rather well-defined spheres of influence and so they were generally content not to interfere in each other’s areas. At the same time, areas of competition, outside the spheres of influence, were usually not important enough to risk a nuclear war.

These conditions no longer remain in place. We have seen greater proliferation of nuclear capabilities. Although Israel has never officially acknowledged having nuclear weapons, it is (probably by design) a poorly kept secret. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that Israel possesses the “nuclear triad,” meaning it can deliver warheads by missile, bomber and submarine. Having multiple delivery methods increases the likelihood of possessing second strike capability. Since Israel doesn’t officially have a program, no outside power controls

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